I was not a member of Peoples Temple. I have no family members who were members of the Temple. I was one year old when the tragedy happened.
But I am someone who has a tie to the story, and that tie is extremely strong. That tie is to the people, the humanity and the love that could be found among them. This bond has given me the strength to walk in the shoes as much as I possibly can, and understand the why and how, and give the people – those who died and those who survived – a place to stand and a place to be understood.
It is so disheartening, especially in the political climate of today, to see so many people not recognized as human beings. This can be seen in many ways on the evening news, from local to national levels. It has always been especially disheartening for me to come across the phrase “drink the Kool-aid” or to hear the people who died in Guyana labeled as “mindless” and part of a “cult.” More and more, I find people who only know this way of thinking, and it has become harder and harder to find people who write on the subject or discuss it to look at the people of Peoples Temple as who they really were.
I recently found two people who share the passion that I do. These people were inspired by Leigh Fondakowski’s incredible play that humanized the people of the Temple, and that is evident by their care in telling a story from their hearts and souls. These people are the authors Judy Bebelaar and Ron Cabral.
I was recently given the honor to review their forthcoming book And Then They Were Gone. With that said, this will not be a review by a professional writer with that experience, but rather this is a book review from the heart of someone who works with teenagers every day of the year, who has learned their nuances and the lingo they surprise me with, each and every day.
I have spent more than 18 years working with teenagers as a high school sociology teacher, coach, mentor, and advisor. The passion I have developed over the years for the people of Peoples Temple is something I try to pass that on to my students. I have had guest speakers in my classroom, including Tim Carter, a survivor of the final day, as well as former Temple member Kathy Barbour, both of whom have enhanced the experience for my students.
This assignment was much different from anything I have done. I was tasked with analyzing the work of other people. However, it was very similar to other work I have done, as it was so relatable to my life in working with teenage students, and I felt as if I was reading something from my heart as well.
More than 300 children and teenagers were murdered in Guyana on November 18, 1978, a statistic I had read many times, but hadn’t internalized until I read this book. Even though I work with teenagers every single day, I had never considered just how many teens were in Jonestown. After reading this book, it became evident to me just how strong of a role the teenage and young adult mindset played into Peoples Temple. I had read many stories of the sons of Jim Jones himself, but never truly from the perspective of their young men having to make tough decisions about their own father. It was incredible to look at the role of “teacher” both in Jonestown and in California prior to that. The concept behind the Opportunity High School which more than 120 teenagers of Peoples Temple attended, attempted to reflect the ideals of the Temple.
The authors did an excellent job moving from the early days of the Temple and giving the reader a sense that these teenagers were “normal,” just like the kids I see and teach on a daily basis. Being a coach myself, it was amazing to see how players on the baseball team of Opportunity High eventually became the core of the basketball team in Jonestown. Here we had youth and teachers and coaches dealing with issues that we deal with today, against the backdrop of Jim Jones and his ideals and foibles. There is incredible work done by the authors to portray the teenagers for what they truly were: creative, sensitive, artistic, athletic, and sometimes rugged and trouble making – all adjectives that fit teenagers over time, no matter where or when or who.
This well-written book takes the reader through the story of the final days of Jonestown. Even though it is information many historians of the topic already know, the different lens of the teenager mindset gives a fresh interpretation. I can’t help but reflect back on the passionate poems written by Opportunity High teenagers, years before that final tragic day, that are included in the book. The poems are a perfect reminder of what is in the heart and soul of teenagers, and it was these passionate words that resonated throughout this work.
The book ends with a passing moment during which two of the survivors – sons of Jim Jones himself – return to their high school, the place where their innocence once thrived, to stop in and see an old teacher. It is in this moment that the book ultimately nails what it set out to do: to show the humanity of the people of Peoples Temple, and to do so from the students’ and teachers’ perspectives. Those of us in education know that magical feeling when a student from years ago stops in just to say hello, or a player comes back to a coach to throw some batting practice. The young men who did this had just lived through the unthinkable, and will have to deal with it the rest of their lives. There will always be something safe, and something caring, and something loving, and ultimately something special about visiting an old teacher, to remind the former student what is right in the world. For just that one moment they were back to a place where poetry and baseball were all that mattered, two things that stand in stark contrast to Jim Jones and their lives during that last year in Jonestown.
I know one final thing after reading this review copy: I plan to use it in my classroom when the time comes for Peoples Temple discussions. I can think of no better compliment for a book written by teachers to be used by another teacher in a classroom setting. I thank the authors from the bottom of my heart. You presented a perspective that my students can now truly grasp what they may have been like had they been there. It also has opened my eyes to what I may have been like, if I had been a teacher who stumbled upon Peoples Temple.
So ends my book review. And as I now plan on digging deeper into the text with my students, I think of the power and beauty that can be found in the heart and soul of our youth. And for that, I will continue to teach . . .
(Craig Foreman is a Sociology and History Teacher with the Expedition Academy at Theodore Roosevelt High School in Kent, Ohio. The school’s website is www.expeditionacademy.com. Craig’s other story in this edition of the jonestown report is Innocence Lost, Innocence Found. His previous stories for this site may be found here. He may be reached at Ke_cforeman@kentschools.net.)